With their crowds, constant action and visual delights, metropolitan agricultural shows were popular subjects for newsreels, documentaries and home movies.
Since the nineteenth century, Australia’s agricultural shows have provided us with opportunities to reflect on the values and aspirations of our communities; celebrate achievements ranging from excellence in cattle breeding to the beauty of a delicate piece of embroidery; and enjoy a break from the routine of everyday life. A place of work and leisure, education and entertainment, the annual agricultural show is still an important event in hundreds of communities across Australia.
The earliest surviving film of an Australian agricultural show is probably footage of the 1907 Royal Show: Perth, which featured a large crowd watching a parade of cattle, horses and carriages. One of the oldest surviving films to include a regional show is Pathé Freres’ Living Bendigo, shot during the town’s show week in October 1911. Alongside images of Bendigo’s major buildings, businesses and scenic attractions, there is the local agricultural show, where well-dressed citizens enjoy the sideshows, exhibits and parade. Colour footage, such as the 1941 documentary Sydney on Show, captures the excitement and enjoyment of agricultural shows.
The grand parade was one of the most commonly filmed parts of agricultural shows. With its display of livestock champions, the grand parade is often regarded as the heart of the agricultural show. According to the 1953 newsreel segment, Fat of the Land: Melbourne’s Coronation Show, it is the event ‘that thrills countryman and city dweller alike’. For Movietone News and Cinesound Review, the grand parade provided an instantly recognisable scene for cinemagoers, a quick visual summary of the best of the region’s or state’s animals and the opportunity to comment on regional and even national progress and values. The voice-over for another 1953 newsreel segment, Easter Parade: Sydney’s Royal Show, describes:
a sight that should make every Australian feel thankful and proud. Thankful because the thousands of animals in the grand parade are the bluebloods of flocks and herds which mean pastoral wealth and food aplenty. Proud because this young nation is a food storehouse for the world and because our sheep and cattle are among the finest anywhere. Inside this arena is represented a pastoral industry that, despite our industrial growth, is still our richest asset. Here is wealth on the hoof, the nation’s economic backbone on show for all to see in the grand parade.
Equestrian events in the main ring were also popular topics for filming, as in this television segment from With Gentle Majesty (1962). They offered thrills and spills with the ever-present risk of a dramatic fall. At their local cinema, audiences could watch riders and horses attempt the high jump and water jump, filmed at normal speed, in slow motion and sometimes in reverse (see, for instance, a 1934 Movietone News clip with the intertitle ‘Horses and riders display great daring in high jump’).
From the outset, shows were about entertainment as well as education and competition, despite occasional grumbles from some individuals that there was too much emphasis on fun. Sideshow alleys were well established by the twentieth century, and sideshow operators and performers travelled from show to show. As well as rides and games of chance, until the 1960s and 1970s, sideshow alleys were home to an extraordinary array of entertainers and spectacles including human and animal ‘freaks’. There was Betty Broadbent, the tattooed lady; Chang, the ‘Pinheaded Chinaman’; Sarina, the bullet-proof lady; Princess Pontus, ‘the Amazon Giantess’; and Jimmy Sharman’s boxing tents, where a troupe of fighters challenged all comers (Sharman’s tents were re-created in the feature September, 2007). The animal oddities included Dinny, allegedly the biggest pig in the world; ‘Happy Harry, world’s only double-jointed horse’; and ‘Wee Jimmy, the world’s smallest horse’. Tent show performers included Johnny O’Keefe, Slim Dusty and the Maori Troubadours. The visual excitement, cacophony of noise and constant activity of sideshow alleys made them a popular choice for filming. Newsreel segments, such as the 1933 World and His Wife Visit Sydney Show, and home movies such as McIlwraith, Peter: Brisbane Show and Moonbi Park (c1950) are now among the most important sources on the history of sideshow alley.
Animal judging – most usually of cattle and horses but sometimes of dogs – the wood chop and other ring events were also common features of film segments about agricultural shows. After recording the efforts of a young competitor to prepare his horse for competition, the documentary A Morning at the World’s Greatest Agricultural Show (c1926) includes footage of the Clydesdale horse judging at the Sydney show. Some important elements of the shows, however, appeared on film only occasionally. There is relatively little coverage of agricultural produce including the magnificent district exhibits which presented the best of a region’s produce at the metropolitan shows. Big Crowds: 1966 Royal Easter Show, which includes Prime Minister Harold Holt inspecting produce displays, is an exception. Similarly the craft and cookery, horticultural, poultry and fish sections were rarely included in the newsreels. These sections were usually located inside buildings, sometimes posing difficulties for filmmakers in terms of light levels. They were either static displays or involved only limited movement, reducing their cinematic appeal.
Perhaps what is most striking about the newsreel coverage of agricultural shows is its similarity from one year to the next, a similarity that reflects the stability of the shows themselves, with their longstanding commitment to a set of core values (pride in traditional rural industries, competition, collaboration, progress and the interdependence of town and country) and their reliance on competitions, exhibits and entertainments which changed only gradually. Nevertheless, the development of new industries and technologies and the impact of major events including the two world wars have affected agricultural shows. In 1940, for example, Sydney’s Royal Easter Show included exhibits by Australia’s military forces, a focus of the 1941 newsreel, The Show’s on Show.
Throughout their history, agricultural shows have offered exhibitors and visitors a combination of serious competition and light-hearted amusements. Similarly, in the twentieth century, Cinesound and Movietone newsreels presented cinema audiences with a combination of serious news coverage and entertainment (see also Cinesound Movietone Australian Newsreels). Newsreel segments on agricultural shows alternated between serious pronouncements on Australia’s present and future and frivolous commentary. Agricultural shows seem to have provided newsreels with a particularly rich resource for some very corny jokes supported by visual gags, such as the 1955 segment, Wealth of a Nation: Melbourne Show Tops Record. During the newsreel era, show goers could enjoy all the fun of their once-a-year visit to their local or metropolitan agricultural show and then relive that fun at the cinema.
- ‘Not Strictly Business: Freaks and the Australian Showground World’ (2009)
Australian Historical Studies, Vol. 40, No. 3, pp 323–42
- Sideshow Alley (1998)
Broome, Richard with Alick Jackomos
Allen & Unwin: St Leonards ISBN 18644875
- Agricultural Shows in Australia: A Survey (1999)
Darian-Smith, Kate and Sara Wills
Australian Centre: University of Melbourne ISBN 0734017731
- Showtime: A History of the Brisbane Exhibition (2008)
Scott, Joanne and Ross Laurie
University of Queensland Press: St Lucia ISBN 9780702236587
Titles in this collection
The experience of the Brisbane Exhibition (now officially called the Royal Queensland Show) is captured beautifully in this amateur footage.
A straightforward glimpse into the lives of the trainers, handlers and owners of horses and livestock competing at the 1926 Royal Agricultural Show.
Sydney on Show c1940
This documentary from about 1940 shows Sydney’s progress as a modern city. It is from the large private film collection of Roger McKenzie and Bernard Kent.
With Gentle Majesty 1962
The high point of the Melbourne Royal Agricultural Show each day is the Grand Parade. The initial languid pace of the filming and editing nicely underscores the images of the huge, slow-moving workhorses.